05/26/2004 12:00AM

This California dream can wait


BALTIMORE - It was February in California, and Ryan Fogelsonger had it made - young, money in the bank, career, woman on his arm, no college loans, even a puppy to dote over.

Most 22-year-olds would have been enjoying the high life - make enough money to pay the rent and design the day around catching the most sun. Instead, he was crying the blues to his former agent, Kevin Witte, in Maryland.

"What's happening?" Witte asked. "You and your girl having problems?"

"No, we're fine," Fogelsonger said.

"Work bothering you?" Witte asked.

"A little, but I'll stick it out," Fogelsonger said. "It'll be okay."

The next day, Fogelsonger called Witte again, and there went six months of toughing it out on the salty California circuit. The 2002 Eclipse Award apprentice and his girlfriend, Daniela Pane, were coming home.

All Witte could do was think business.

"You couldn't have told me this two days ago?" Witte asked, tabulating the missed opportunities like only a jock's agent can.

"I wasn't positive, now I'm positive," Fogelsonger said.

"Give me a week and we'll be good to go," Witte said.

Witte spread the word and Fogelsonger was home by Valentine's Day. He walked into the Laurel jocks' room and smiled - there is nothing like coming home. The rest of the room welcomed him back, and trainers gave him calls immediately. On his first day, he won the Barbara Fritchie on Bear Fan - a horse from California, no less. In three short months, Fogelsonger has returned to familiar territory - atop the Maryland standings.

"I kind of knew when I went out there that if I didn't like it, I could come back," Fogelsonger said. "But it's never a sure thing. Luckily, I got all my business back pretty quick. Now it's like I never left."

Fogelsonger won five of the 17 races last weekend at Pimlico and led Steve Hamilton by three wins at the Pimlico spring meet. The energy is back, the optimism is back, and the jockey in him is going full speed.

"I'm happy again," Fogelsonger said after riding seven races on Saturday. "I'm smiling every day. I love coming to work again."

Fogelsonger took an Evel Knievel leap when he cleaned out his corner in Maryland and went to California. Less than two years removed from his first winner, it was an audacious move. Sure, the California jocks' room had lost icons Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay, and Eddie Delahoussaye. But with Gary Stevens, Alex Solis, Mike Smith, Pat Valenzuela, Julie Krone, and Kent Desormeaux, it's still a mighty room.

Fogelsonger landed running, cracking the top 10 at Santa Anita, Fairplex, and Hollywood Park. A fall in mid-December injured his shoulder and stunted his arc. He won two races in a month after he returned from the spill. Work was beginning to feel like work - trainers went cold on him, and for the first time in his short career, it was an uphill climb.

Maryland was calling louder and louder.

"It was a number of things - being so far away from my family was difficult," Fogelsonger said. "It's just not the same out there - it's a completely different lifestyle and how the game is run. It wasn't my lifestyle. I'm more laid back with working and without working. Everything out there is get up and go."

The night before Fogelsonger decided to leave, he went to dinner with Stevens, who told him California will always be there. Go home, keep rocking in Maryland, and try it again some time. Fogelsonger needed and heeded his advice.

"Getting to ride with those guys and seeing those kind of trainers, I wouldn't take it back for anything," he said. "I think I'll try again. Not tomorrow or the next day, but maybe somewhere down the line."

Fogelsonger won five straight jockey titles in Maryland before he left, and he's on his way to his first since his return. For someone who has only been riding horses - not races, but horses - since 1999, it has been a meteoric rise. The California jaunt didn't pan out, but with natural hands and instincts, it won't be long before he's eyeing different frontiers.

"Not to sound like I have an ego, but a couple of people said I did better than anyone else did when they went out there," Fogelsonger said. "I felt great. I was winning races. I wasn't trying to be intimidated. I just figured it was like any other jocks' room that's won thousands and thousands of races. But for some reason, I felt like an outcast. I'd rather be here and be a big fish in a medium pond."

Maryland's medium pond won't provide Fogelsonger with many Kentucky Derby rides or Breeders' Cup mounts. But for now, it's where he needs to be.

"Right now, I'm content to be here and be happy," Fogelsonger said. "I've got plenty of time. I'll wait for Alex [Solis] and all those other old guys to retire. Don't write that part, they'll be looking for me."

He won't be hard to find. The boy's home again.